BY SANTI ELBOW | PHOTO BY KETKANYA SUTHIRATVIROJ
Asia is one of the most exotic and tropical places to visit, especially Thailand which is known as The City of Gold due to the many gold-covered buildings and temples. During a two-week vacation trip in the summer of 2017, I got a first-hand look at the various traditions and abundant cultural related activities.
The purpose of this specific Thailand trip was to reconnect with my grandmother’s family and to see how well my relatives and cousins are doing since the last time I saw them two years ago. My Aunt, Ketkanya Suthiratviroj, hosts us at her house, so we got to see her side of the family too. Especially now that my mother has passed on, they need to see us make a bigger effort to connect with them and visit annually instead of every two years to commemorate my mother’s wonderful life.
During the first four days in Thailand, I was in my Grandmother’s village, Khon Ken, six hours outside of Bangkok. Traveling to Thailand was long as well as tiring, and we woke up at around 9 a.m. and prepared and left for our flight at noon from Madison, Wisconsin. The flight was 12 and a half hours on planes and going through airport security. We spent half a day and night before arriving in Bangkok, Thailand and getting picked up and driven back to my aunt’s house. At that same time when we were still recovering from jet lag and were tired she told us to sleep as much as possible tonight.
Early the next morning at 7 a.m., we were heading to my grandmother’s village in Khon Ken several miles outside of Bangkok in the countryside with no Internet access. That would be next to impossible for the average American to survive there. I was not pleased about that because I was still trying to get over jet lag and was not ready to hit the ground traveling again.
I saw the new adjustment she made to the village, such as the shrine my grandma had built in memory of my mother on a piece of land she bought on a side road connected to the back of her village. I went to temples to give thanks to the monks. Then, I got my blessing from my grandmother and visited friends and relatives of my mom. A lot of the time spent there was used translating between English and Thai for my father and my family and friends.
The national language of the country is Thai, which is derived from the language Laos –the language of the neighboring country that has the same name.
Thailand is a warm, humid and rarely dry country with the heat reaching up to 90℉ and sometimes over 100℉. Many of the areas in Thailand are filled with farms for growing rice and other farmland crops except for big cities like Bangkok, which is the capital of the country.
There are many animals used on these farmland areas especially water buffalos which are used to plow the rice fields and make way for good crops to grow. This is a different landscape compared to the U.S. where the heat and humidity are almost never this hot and the need for multiple showers a day is not necessary. Asian elephants are not uncommon to see in the countryside of Thailand as well. They are used as means of transportation, and farmers use them to get back to their crops if they do not own water buffalos.
Ceremonies in Thailand, especially those for weddings and deaths, are huge and the monks sing specific chants. Traditional clothing is brought in to connect far away family members who don’t live in Thailand. Traditional Thai clothing is fancy silk crafted clothes usually in bright colors such as a dress shirt in light blue with buttons with dark blue pants which only reach towards the upper parts of the legs. These are only worn during big events such as wedding and death ceremonies and funerals, and the monks are even brought in to give ritual chants to bless the newlyweds.
Some of the more exciting aspects of the trip were traveling around and getting to see the developments that were made to Thailand and Bangkok in the last two years. Everything has changed especially under the new king, Maha Vajiralongkorn.
Visiting the entertainment centers are my favorite because they are not what we would consider normal in the United States. They train crocodiles and snakes to do shows and perform tricks. In the U.S., you do not get to see that happen.
Certain drinks that are normal in America are reinvented and drank differently. For instance, there is a drink called iced cocoa, which is essentially a hot cocoa with chocolate ice cream, thick milk, and ice. It is one of my favorite modifications to an American-like drink. The taste of both chocolate and milk in the drink is rich and creamy and would be compared to a richer, more flavorful chocolate shake.
Eating food is not just a necessity, but more a hobby. The belief there is the larger you are, the healthier you are because you were fed well. In addition, it makes the host who took care of you look good.
Some of the popular foods sampled in Thailand are grilled pork, sticky rice, grass leaves and a blue flower which in English is translated as “Blue Vine” or “Butterfly Pea.” This flower has two variations: the first is white, and the second one, which is the most common one, is a purplish-blue colored flower which you eat with the rest of the food.
The main religion practiced in Thailand is Buddhism, and they practice it daily and go to temples to give merit and pray with the monks who live there as well as meditate to clear and cleanse the human body of any suffering and pain. The religion means that people who practice it believe in the practicing and teachings of Buddha and believe in reincarnation and the afterlife as well as heaven and hell, they believe that when you die you go to Nirvana, which is their version heaven and hell. Depending on how you were in your life, you will go to one of the two.
Buddhism is the belief that peace is the answer, so we treat everyone nicely regardless of background history or what they have done to us. We believe that there is good in everyone, and nonviolence is the answer to world peace. To get there, you need to believe it exists and be pure of heart during your lifetime.
“The aim of religion itself is to liberate from suffering, ending the circle of life also known as Nirvana,” said Nuttapol Suthiratviroj, my oldest cousin, who explained that for Thai people, Buddhism is a core belief for the worldview and construction of most of the values in their lives.
Many families in Thailand also believe in kinship which means that newborns who are brought into the family who would be considered your cousins are, in fact, your nieces and nephews, and you would be considered an uncle or aunt to them regardless of your age difference unless you are an elder in which case, you would be considered a grandmother or grandfather.
Symbolism is also very important and big in Thailand with the main religion being Buddhism. A lot of symbols in Thailand can be seen in homes and in public, and most of them are of the king and royal family since Thailand is ruled through a constitutional monarchy Showing disrespect for the king or giving out your opinion about him despite his wrongdoings is a serious legal offense with serious consequences including prison followed by death.
After spending two weeks in Thailand over the course of this past summer and working most of the summer, this trip seemed a lot shorter than in the past. When I was younger and in middle school and in high school I would spend the entirety of my summer which was three months in Thailand. Now that I am in college and must work over the course of the summer due to being an adult it made me sad that my time spent in Thailand was shortened because I really do enjoy the place and seeing my family, so I was sad when my vacation came to an end and I had to leave to go back to the United States.
Looking back at my two-week trip to Thailand this past summer I feel bad for not spending more than two weeks over the course of summer and having to work because it is nice being around my family who has a positive influence on me. When we are hosted by my aunt they do so much to make us feel at home – food, comfort, and shelter as well as entertainment. As good hosts, they plan and structure all the activities and outings we do for the entire trip – including my stay in Thailand.
In the U.S. there is a sense of structure within my family and those I relate to, but it is not as planned or structured and it is freer with everyone doing their own thing whenever they want or have the time to, but do not go out of their way to host others and plan activities with family members as much making it less likely to form that connection compared to people in Thailand.
My overall experience in Thailand during this two-week trip was nice because it gave me some time to reconnect with my mother’s side of the family while also relaxing and having fun and forget about school, classes and my job for a bit. It was a much-needed vacation and a beautiful get together to commemorate my mother’s life.